September 24, 2017 (Steven O’Reilly) – Last week saw the one year anniversary of the Dubia come and go. On September 19, 2016 Pope Francis first received the five questions submitted to him by the four “Dubia Cardinals;” Caffarra, Meisner, Brandmuller and Burke (see here). As we wait for the expected “formal correction” of Pope Francis by the Dubia cardinals, word comes that a group of 62 individuals from nearly two dozen countries have made public their own “filial correction” of Pope Francis (see here). A summary of this correction from the group’s website, says in part:
“It states that the pope has, by his Apostolic Exhortation Amoris laetitia, and by other, related, words, deeds and omissions, effectively upheld 7 heretical positions about marriage, the moral life, and the reception of the sacraments, and has caused these heretical opinions to spread in the Catholic Church.”
For those that haven’t done so already, I urge you to read the document and its listing and explanation of the 7 heretical positions noted above, as well its explanation of the signatories’ purpose in addressing this correction to the Pope:
“As subjects, we do not have the right to issue to Your Holiness that form of correction by which a superior coerces those subject to him with the threat or administration of punishment (cf. Summa Theologiae 2a 2ae, 33, 4). We issue this correction, rather, to protect our fellow Catholics – and those outside the Church, from whom the key of knowledge must not be taken away (cf. Lk. 11:52) – hoping to prevent the further spread of doctrines which tend of themselves to the profaning of all the sacraments and the subversion of the Law of God.”
I still need to read through the document a couple more times, but I believe the folks responsible for writing and signing this document have done a great service in the cause of the Church and of the truth. They are to be commended for this effort.
Without detracting from this noble effort, the main attraction yet to come is the “formal correction” led by the remaining “Dubia Cardinals.” What should we expect from it? Cardinal Burke has actually told us quite a bit. In an interview in the Wanderer, the Cardinal said (emphasis added):
It seems to me that the essence of the correction is quite simple. On the one hand, one sets forth the clear teaching of the Church; on the other hand, what is actually being taught by the Roman Pontiff is stated. If there is a contradiction, the Roman Pontiff is called to conform his own teaching in obedience to Christ and the Magisterium of the Church. The question is asked, “How would this be done?” It is done very simply by a formal declaration to which the Holy Father would be obliged to respond.”
In the Wanderer interview we can see at least three elements that Cardinal Burke suggests will be in the formal correction: (1) the teaching of the Church is set forth, (2) potential errors of the Pope are identified, (3) the Pope is called upon to “conform his own teaching” to Christ and the Magisterium of the Church. Cardinal Burke said something similar in a recent interview with the Hungarian independent Catholic news service Katolikus Válasz: “Since a formal correction would treat a fundamental teaching or fundamental teachings of the Catholic faith, it would require the Pope to fulfill his solemn duty to teach what the Catholic Church has always taught and practiced” (LifeSite News).
Both interviews, using different words, say something similar regarding the necessity of the Pope to respond. One says the formal correction would ‘oblige the Pope to respond’ while the other says “it would require the Pope to fulfill his solemn duty to teach what the Catholic Church has always taught and practiced.” It seems to me that Cardinal Burke is not speaking of a moral obligation which a Pope might ignore, but an obligation arising from an “or-else” hanging over the Pope’s head if he does not respond correctly or at all after a specified period of time and a specified number of warnings. That is, the See of Peter will be declared vacant if Pope Francis fails to comply after said warnings. Cardinal Burke seems to have suggested as much in a previous interview where he stated hypothetically: “If a Pope would formally profess heresy he would cease, by that act, to be the Pope. It’s automatic. And so, that could happen” (See Catholic World Report).
Now, it is certainly possible that my analysis is wrong. It just might be the “formal correction” will not do anything but outline the Church’s teaching, and outline the errors circulating in the Church under the papacy of Francis. I suppose this would be better than nothing or a kick in the head, but not by much. However, I don’t think the “Dubia Cardinals” would have started on this path if they were not willing to follow it even to the worst-case conclusion, i.e., issuing real canonical warnings that might conceivably end in the Chair of Peter being declared vacant if the Pope was pertinacious and obstinate. I previously provided some musings on a “formal correction” based on my reading of Cardinal Burke. Briefly, the “formal correction” document will likely do the following:
(1) The teachings of prior popes and of the Catholic Church related to the five Dubia will be clearly stated and cited (e.g. Familiaris Consortio, Veritatis Splendour, Council of Trent, Catholic Catechism, etc)
(2) Also specifically cited will be the erroneous opinions and practices that contradict these teachings, which are currently circulating among members of the Church (e.g., the communion guidelines of Malta, Germany, Rome)
(3) The Pope will be required to do two things. First, he will be asked to publicly affirm and profess the Catholic teachings cited and conform his actions to them. Second, he will be asked to explicitly and publicly reject – without reservations – the erroneous opinions and practices circulating which contradict those teachings, even if he himself had previously held, shared, or written such opinions himself as a private person and theologian.
(4) Formal Correction will either itself be the first warning, or if not, it will possibly state a first one (or second one, if the “formal correction” is the first canonical warning) will be issued if the Pope fails to do as requested after a specified period of time (six months?).
For Pope Francis to refuse or fail to respond to what such a “formal correction” asks – even by silence – would suggest the Pope is being pertinacious and obstinate. Qui tacet consentire videtur, ubi loqui debuit ac potuit (“who is silent seems to agree, where he ought to speak and was able to”). In such a case, it would appear that the Church could rightly interpret silence and inaction as a clear sign of the pope’s pertinacious and obstinate consent to heresy. God forbid it goes down this path, but if it does, this process may drag out over a period of six or more months after the issuance of the “formal correction,” depending on the time periods given with each warning. In sum, there is no quick end or solution to the crisis.
The Dubia cardinals’ pattern till now seems to have been to deliver a private letter to the pope, and then to notify the Church publicly of their efforts should there be no response after about two months. For example, the dubia cardinals first went public with the dubia in mid-November 2016 after the Pope failed to respond to their mid-September 2016 letter. In June 2017 the Dubia cardinals publicized their failed attempt in May to seek an audience with the Pope to discuss the Dubia. Given this June notification was intended for the Church at large and not for the Pope, there would be no reason to long delay the delivery of the formal correction to the Pope after this point in time. Thus, it appears likely, to me at least, that the “formal correction” was hand delivered to the Pope some time in July or August. If the cardinals are true to their prior habit of waiting one to two months before going public, we might expect the “formal correction” by the end of October, if not much sooner.
This whole process began with only 4 “Dubia Cardinals.” There are now only two left. I hope the “formal correction” when it is issued will have many other cardinals as signatories. However, with Francis having appointed nearly half of the cardinals now eligible to vote in a conclave – and many of the existing ones having voted for him, we might be lucky to see twenty to thirty cardinals signing on to a “formal correction.” If, God forbid, the crisis continues down this nightmare path (i.e., Francis obstinately and pertinaciously refuses to affirm the Faith and reject heresy by the end of the time period set by the warnings) the remaining faithful cardinals, perhaps with the remaining faithful episcopate, would meet to declare the See of Peter vacant and proceed to elect another pontiff.
Of course, the deposition of a pope for formal heresy is only what is theoretically, or speculatively possible at this point. Only a few years ago this would be something one might find in a fantasy novel or in dusty treatises in theology written by long-dead theologians. Unfortunately, what was once only a debated hypothetical among theologians is now – lamentably – quite imaginable. Indeed, it now appears like a great storm on the weather radar – still distant, but approaching. Yet, many Catholics are unaware there is such a storm churning just beyond the horizon, some not having ever heard of “Amoris Laetitia” or the “Dubia.” I certainly hope Pope Francis will heed the corrections and warnings and spare the Church a certain catastrophe. It would be a catastrophe, but I have no doubt the Church would survive it. Let us pray Pope Francis remembers the Lord’s words to Peter: “Simon, Simon, behold Satan hath desired to have you, that he may sift you like wheat. But I have prayed for thee, that thy faith fail not: and thou being once converted, confirm thy brethren” (Luke 22:31-32).
Steven O’Reilly is a graduate of the University of Dallas and the Georgia Institute of Technology. He lives near Atlanta with his wife Margaret. He has four children. He has written apologetic articles and is working on a historical-adventure trilogy, set during the time of the Arian crisis. He can be contacted at StevenOReilly@AOL.com.
UPDATED: September 26. 2017